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The Steroid Era: I’m Looking at the Man in the Mirror

5/15/09

By Ryan Hohman


I have an admission to make. I’m not proud of it, but I feel it’s time for me to exercise the demon. When I found out that Manny Ramirez had been suspended for 50 games because he tested positive for a banned substance, I giggled. My giggle then grew into frenzied laughter. It was the same snigger and howl that I use on the sidelines when a basketball official is so blatantly brutal that I cannot take it anymore. I laugh so that I don’t go crazy. I laugh to mask my anger and frustration. I laugh because it’s not funny. I laugh because it hurts; it’s a desperate defense mechanism. When the story broke, I was sitting at lunch with the only Dodger’s fan I know, but I didn’t laugh to mock him. I laughed because my reality as baseball fan had become this: the greatest hitter I’ve ever seen is a juice head…and it pisses me off. Nothing is sacred! I should’ve known better. So I continue to laugh because this is all so predictable now; I’ve been down this road before and I may be partially responsible.
I remember sitting in room 732 of Wayne Hall, watching Big Mac go deep for number 62. I was so proud to have witnessed history. I laughed because of actual happiness then, cracking up as McGwire missed first base because of his excitement. I giggled when he and Sammy exchanged their hug and uppercut and remember thinking, “Wow, it doesn’t get much better than this.” Before Big Mac and Sammy Sosa started crushing balls out of every park but Yellowstone, baseball was in dire straits. The fact that these guys looked more like WWF stars didn’t seem to register at the time…or didn’t seem to matter. Baseball was back.


America’s Pasttime had been on life support since the early 90’s. Before 1994, not even two World Wars or an earthquake could cancel the World Series. It took a labor dispute chock full of human greed and selfishness, to stop the most hallowed event in our sporting culture. The cancellation of the 1994 Fall Classic had come on the heels of 1990’s 32 day lockout. When the dust settled the names Donald Fehr and Bug Selig had become as infamous as Butch and Sundance, and baseball saw a steady decline in revenue because of lackluster attendance and merchandise sales. In short, baseball fans were livid, and they were letting owners and players know about it. The Steroid Era was baseball’s defibulator paddles. “We need more juice…let’s wind that ball a little tighter. We’ll ignore that fact that our player’s heads are exploding and guys like Brady Anderson are hitting 50 homers; the fans are coming back to us…CLEAR!” It’s not like Selig and Co. were sitting in a lab cackling like Dr. Frankenstein; everyone involved, even the fans are to blame. The Steroid Era is a product of our society’s ever-growing apathy. “Sure, I knew there was a problem, Barry Bonds needed a specially ordered helmet for God’s sake, but what could I really do about it” was and is the prevailing attitude. It was that mind-set, and the revival of the game thanks to Big Mac and Sammy’s historic homerun chase that kept MLB from “getting tough” on steroids until 2005, a full 15 years after rumblings of steroid use among players started shaking the foundation of the sanctified sport and nearly 10 years after Ken Caminiti publicly proclaimed that half the league was juiced. We got what we wanted; there was reason to cheer again, and MLB got what it wanted, its cash flow back. This indifference is the reason we are still talking about the Steroid Era in the present tense. We are living in it right now. If Manny’s positive test isn’t evidence of this fact, then you mine as well tell me that the sky is purple or that Grizzly Adams didn’t have a beard.


We fans turned our backs in the early 90’s and even though nothing really changed, (there still isn’t a salary cap in baseball which means only a handful of mostly large market teams have a prayer of winning the World Series) by in large, the fans returned to the game like an abused spouse, battered but wanting it all to work out for the best. Maybe it was nostalgia, maybe it was the overwhelming need to be a part of something larger than ourselves, or maybe it was the excitement of watching the record books being rewritten on a weekly basis. Whatever it was, we were duped. We were led to believe that these new records meant something, that the playing field was level, and that the people who were supposed to protect the game’s integrity gave a crap about things like honesty, truthfulness, and sanctity. It’s more likely that we were just victims of wishful thinking. Or an even scarier thought is that our exhilaration and intrigue with obscenely inflated numbers and sacred records crumbling like America’s infrastructure fueled the fire. Steroids were our dirty little secret. As the Balco Case, the Mitchell Report, Kirk Rodomski, Brian McNamee and a slew of steroid related cases tore the soul out baseball’s loins, we fans were left wondering how to react. We villainized steroid users and heaped angst and ire against those we felt were responsible: the players, the union, the owners, and the commish but we never hit’em where it really hurts; the only place a fan can strike with any effectiveness, their pockets.


Unlike the strike and lockouts of the 90’s, the steroid issue has not been enough to keep people from going to the ballpark, and why not? I have dubbed this the Michael Bolton Phenomena. In short, our attitude as fans has been, “why should we change, they’re the ones that suck!” Loyalty to something that’s dysfunctional or is tainted is difficult to justify and even harder to explain. That’s because it’s hard to put those emotions, the ones that keep us going back for more, into words. It’s an addiction. All that I know is that being a baseball fan has been woven into the fabric of my life. It’s part of who I am. I’m American. This is our pastime and part of our history. It is a reflection of who we are. Unfortunately, another part of our history and our national identity involves lying, cheating, bending the rules, manipulating the facts, and doing anything to get an edge. In 2009, this is the American way. This shouldn’t come as any surprise. The carefully constructed textbooks were force-fed as students have blinded us with grandiose visions of our great nation being founded on hard work, perseverance, patriotism, and unity in the face of tyranny. The reality is that for over two centuries our country’s growth and development has been predicated on defying authority and the refusal to conform even when the parameters of what is ethically and morally just must be breeched. We use people. Heck, we use whole nations. We work all the angles. We manipulate the language. And we make it look good. Like it or not, we are the most powerful nation in the world because of our ruthlessness, not because we genuinely care about spreading the principles of democracy and liberty. Likewise, the fan base of any team is not concerned as much with the social and moral implications of rampant drug use among players or the ramification on the record book as much as they are concerned about being entertained and the all mighty win-loss column. The truth is, as long as our team gives us something to cheer for, we’re not going anywhere, even though the games, and the records, and the players themselves aren’t worth our admiration. The giants of the game have fallen from grace, but what do we care?


Mannywood has been shut and the fact that there wasn’t rioting and looting in Mannywood speaks volumes of the indifference of the fans. Most fans who were interviewed seemed to feel sorry for Manny and sorry for themselves. The most confounding thing about the Manny Ramirez case, besides the fact that it would appear Manny could mash without chemical enhancement is the story behind the drug and the way the story was spun. It was so 2009. Unless he’s trying to have a baby, there is no reason why Manny’s doctor would have prescribed the drug that got him suspended for any “unspecified health condition. “ He was suspended for using hCG, a women’sf fertility drug often used by long time steroid abusers to jumpstart their testosterone production to avoid crashing after a cycle. hCG is not new. Jose Canseco was detained at the border a year ago trying to smuggle hCG across the border. Jay Gibbons and David Bell both tried to obtain hCG from a highly scrutinized online pharmacy in 03’ and 05’, and Kirk Rodomski, the former Mets clubhouse attendant whose name is now synonymous with steroids, admitted using hCG while he was abusing steroids. Ramirez, or more likely, his agent Scott Boras tried desperately to spin the story, making it appear as though this was a simple little mistake on the part of Manny’s doctors. They wanted it to appear as though this was some over-the-counter mistake and even attempted to paint Ramirez as a victim.


Let’s be clear, Manny Ramirez is not a victim. Ignorance is no longer an excuse. Major League Baseball has established a system in which the players need only to inquire if a substance is legal before they ingest that substance. It’s pretty simple. MLB has created a whole department dedicated to the sensitive issue of clearing substance and establishing which substances need to appear on the banned substance list. I repeat, there are no more excuses for players! The sport of baseball is the victim. Baseball has had a well documented substance abuse problem throughout its storied history. The golden age of baseball pooh-poohed the alcoholism of such leviathans as “the Sultan of Swill,” Babe Ruth and notorious boozehound, Mickey Mantle. These guys were idolized for their accessibility and on field prowess. During this era, everyone in New York had a story about throwing a few back with the Bambino or wacking shots the Mick. Their vices made the loveable, and their performance despite these vices made them icons. Did the Bambino gain a competitive edge by downing beers between innings? That depends on who you talk to. I know more than a few guys who will crush a softball after slugging a baker’s dozen’s worth of Budweiser’s. Either way, the fact that I can relate to the experience of drinking a few brews and smacking the ball around the diamond illustrates why the actions of guys like the Babe, or Mickey, or even Pat Burrell for that matter is, was, and will always be accepted. The other skeleton in the closet for MLB was the rampant abuse of amphetamines. For decades, beginning after WWII, ball players gulped down “greenies” to keep them going during the grind of a 162 game schedule. Considered by many to be baseballs worst-kept secret, the use of greenies was banned only in 2006 once the image conscious league decided to finally crack down on all anabolic substances. Baseball never got tough on either of these issues because the stakes were relatively low. A negative public perception of the league’s players is one thing; an all out assault on the most sacred records in professional sports is a completely different animal. Steroids changed the game. It gave guys with warning track power the ability to hit 50 homeruns (Brady Anderson). It helped a washed up ace rejuvenate his career (Roger Clemens). Steroids enabled a 30-30 guy with great speed and a better glove to become the greatest power hitter of all time while reducing him to a station-to-station base runner and a defensive liability (Barry Bonds). This is the reason why only steroid has been able to turn baseball, a game with infinite grandeur and dignity into the Lyle Alzado of sports, shriveled up and a shadow of its former self.


Baseball has sold its soul to the devil but chances are I’ll keep tuning in. For the most part, I’m just as apathetic as rest of our nation. As cynical and skeptical as I may be, the media tells me the sport has been cleaned up to an extent. Still the current system of testing is not enough to repair the damage. The consequences of a positive test simply do not fit the crime. A 50 game suspension for the kicking the game in the junk is not enough. A 50 game suspension for completely undermining the adoration of a city for championship team is not enough. 50 games for robbing an American institution of its purity is not enough. Manny Ramirez will still play in 112 games this year and collect overe $14 million despite tearing the hearts out of Dodgers and Red Sox fans while defacing the game and casting a shadow of doubt over his impressive career. All of his achievements will be called into question, and that’s exactly as it should be. There has been two other occasions in which MLB has deemed that the game had been disgraced because the standard of fairness that one would assume did not exist. In both cases, the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, and Pete Rose betting on baseball, the league handed out the ultimate punishment, the ultimate disgrace, a lifetime ban. If the MLB wishes to wash away the stain of steroids, the policy must be zero tolerance. A positive test should be a lifetime ban…PERIOD. No bogus excuses, no media spin doctors. 125 players have either tested positive for a banned substance, admitted using steroids, or have been implicated in steroids scandals. Roughly half of these players are still collecting checks from major league ball clubs. That makes me laugh.


Regrettably, MLB doesn’t have the testicular fortitude to implement zero tolerance; it’s just too risky from a financial point of view especially when the game’s biggest stars are in the spotlight for the wrong reason. Unfortunately, the game will be forever polluted by the Steroid Era. This issue will hang over the sport of baseball like a layer of smog. And just as the smog has not caused us to stop driving and start pedaling even though we know the emissions from our vehicle is the reason for the problem, so we will head to ballpark and cheer even though we know that our cheers and the money our mere presence guarantees owners and players alike guarantees that ballplayers will continue to run the risk of testing positive for the sake of gaining a competitive edge. We as fans should never forget the old baseball adage: “If you ain’t cheating; you ain’t trying.” The players, owners, and commissioner’s office sure hasn’t and we fans should be cognizant of the fact and should constantly be preparing ourselves for the next big letdown. Should we just laugh it off as a sign of the times, sad as it may be? Baseball has always been a transcendent game, one that teaches so many life lessons. It is a mirror of who we are as people. What I see staring back at me in 2009 is more gruesome than ever. Baseball isn’t the only thing that needs a facelift.